How does anybody actually decide what they do? Life is an endless parade of choices: In every moment we prioritize and decide: Do we get up or stay in bed? Do we read the paper or go for a walk? Do we exercise or watch TV? Each of those tiny choices may seem inconsequential on their own, but taken together they end up defining our entire life.
The same is true in business: Every day, we make countless small decisions that end up shaping our organization and its culture. Taken together, they define if a company is perceived as conservative, open, innovative, friendly, motivating, or anything else. In “large“ enterprises though, culture is often thought of as something that can be managed from the top down. We simply define ourselves as “customer focused“, “innovative“, and “collaborative“ and expect that by putting those words on a PowerPoint slide, employees will magically change their attitude and behavior.
Many startups on the other hand tend to neglect deliberate culture building in favor of busywork: Every day there are new customers to talk to, features to implement, fires to be put out, and a thousand other things that need to be done right now. That unceasing maelstrom of tasks hardly allows to hold a week-long offsite workshop about culture and values. Therefore, culture just happens “by accident“. If the people who are working together are open and respectful, that will become the foundation of the company's culture. If they are driven by a narcissistic need to show off their perceived greatness, selfishness and blame will define personal interactions as the company grows. Even worse, software companies tend to bake those unconscious decisions right into their products. As Melvin Conway stated wisely in 1967: “organizations which design systems ... are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.“
I believe that there is an alternative to the top-down approach and pure randomness. It doesn't require culture workshops our outside counselors, nor does it reduce productivity by introducing additional processes. In fact, I think the key to the culture problem, and many others that plague organizations of all sizes today, is a more conscious and deliberate approach to decision making. As I stated in the introduction, everyone is faced with countless decisions every day, and if we manage to make a tiny fraction of those with a bit more mindfulness, much can be achieved.
Business decisions often don't come down to simply yes-or-no questions, but require evaluating and prioritizing different options. If a team is confident they can finish either one of tasks A, B, or C in any given week, and a critical deadline is two weeks out, someone has to make a call what the team should be working on. In that case it's no use if management proclaims an “AND-not-OR culture“, trying to coerce the team into taking on more work than they can finish. It's also not useful to hand the decision making authority over to the team: By doing that, managers try to hide their own insecurity behind the group, which in turn negates the very need for a manager. Instead, someone will have to step up and make a call. That decision though needs to be based on conscious and deliberate thinking, nut just a “gut feeling“.
On a personal level, everyone of us has to prioritize our daily schedule: Do you answer your e-mails, fix a critical bug, rework your sales strategy, write a blog post, implement a new feature or work on the marketing plan for the next quarter? If your answer is “all of the above“, or worse, if you don't even ask yourself the question before starting to work on anything, you may be on a dangerous path of overcommitment, disappointment, shame, and guilt.
You may argue that in your job, prioritizing is not as big of a deal. You may not have the broad range of choice from the previous example, or you may not have the autonomy to set a team's agenda for the weeks or months to come. Nevertheless I think that conscious and deliberate decision making can benefit anyone, regardless of the scope and reach of their decisions. Remember that the sum of everyone's small decisions in an organization is what shapes that organizations culture!
Tools & Models
Personally, I rely on a few simple tools for prioritizing. The following are a few examples of approaches that I found useful and valuable, but there are many more out there. Let me know about your favorite prioritization tools via e-mail or Twitter!
Remember the good old Eisenhower Matrix? As dusty and anachronistic as it may seem in the 21st century, I believe Ike was on to something: The mere fact that by using this approach you have to think about the nature - urgent or important - of each of your tasks can open up new perspectives and levels of understanding. In the first example from above, we might learn that while task A seems urgent (be it the fix of a critical bug, or the implementation of a killer feature that will blow away our competitors) it may not be important in the current context. If the deadline we were talking about is a demo at a roadshow, the presenter may be able to work around the bug, or just show a prototype of the awesome feature, and nobody will notice the difference. That way, we could prioritize tasks B and C, without actually losing anything in the short term. Even more important, we might be able to achieve the same outcome (a great presentation at the roadshow) without having to increase the teams output by forcing them to do additional work.
I like this example because it shows how by prioritizing wisely, we can achieve two things at once: We get the business outcome we wanted, but also invested in a healthy organizational culture by not forcing the team to take on additional work, or do their work in a sloppy manner. It also shows the importance of good leadership: A decision has to be made, but it doesn't have to come down to personal preference or feelings.
Another approach that I like to use for personal tasks is centered about the idea of enabling others: If I have two tasks to chose from, say writing a blog post and answering a complex technical question from a team member, I ask myself: “Which of those tasks will enable another person to do their job (better)?“ Or the other way around: “If I neglect this tasks, will I inhibit another person from doing their work?“ I heavily leaned on this approach during my tenure as the Product Owner in a large scrum team. While I had a ton of things I wanted to get done myself, I tried to prioritize work that enabled my team members to do their jobs. That way, my blog post might get published a day later than I wanted to, but my team didn't have to wait a day for my answer to a question about a feature they were working on, so they could immediately continue with their own work. The beauty about this approach is that it scales nicely: If you do a small thing that enables another person, that's great. If you can do another thing that enables a team of ten to do their work, that's even better! By making that choice deliberately, we again strengthen our organizational culture by demonstrating responsiveness and respect towards others. Consider the alternative: Everyone is trying to get their own work done, putting the needs of others off until it's too late. What kind of corporate culture would that lead to?
Spending time and effort to contemplate your potential work can have another beneficial side effect: It reveals how you spend your valuable time, and where optimization might pay off. Many of our tasks are of a repetitive nature, and with some consideration and the right tools can be automated. Automation is a double-edged sword though, as it may be tempting to try to “automate everything“, neglecting the economic realities of what that means.
Think about the effort it takes to do the task manually, multiply that by how often you have to do it in a given timeframe, and how long you think that task will be required at all. Then, compare that with the effort you think it'll take to automate the task, plus the expected maintenance of the automation itself. For example, publishing the release notes of a software product may take one hour. It needs to happen for every release, say twelve times per year, and for as long as we plan the product to be around, say five more years. The total lifetime effort for that task would then be 60 hours. Now, if you're contemplating to replace that task with automation you can ask yourself: “Will automating that task in an effective way take significantly less than 60 hours?“ If you think it'll take you ten hours to automate, you might be on to a bargain. If it requires a team of five and will take a week, you may chose not to invest in automating that task, despite the perceived inefficiency of continuing to do the work manually. Making this decision consciously also contributes to your organizations culture: If “automate everything“ is a non-negotiable rule (as it is for too many technical teams), overall performance may be stifled by focusing on automating things that are just not worth it.
The sum of small decisions is what creates an organizations culture. If we make those decisions more deliberately, we have a choice about what our culture will be like. Prioritizing wisely can make the difference between a company that's perceived as demanding, stressful, and unhealthy, and one that's collaborative, inclusive and open.